Julien Leclercq was only 14 when a group of four heavily armed Muslim terrorists hijacked an Air France plane in Algiers bound for France. He says the images he saw on television of the GIGN team (the elite counter-terrorism paramilitary unit of the French National Gendarmerie) storming the plane to rescue the hostages are firmly etched in his memory. Of course, he is not alone- an estimated 21mil French people were also riveted to their screens that fateful day back in 1994.

Fourteen years later, the director was to read a book written by a real-life GIGN member which would inspire him to make a movie about the harrowing incident. “I was surprised that they were no movies made on the subject, only maybe one or two documentaries,” he says, and this paucity strengthened his resolve to film ‘The Assault’, his sophomore feature after the critically acclaimed ‘Chrysalis’.   

Leclercq was in town to promote his movie during the inaugural ScreenSingapore with his leading actress Melanie Bernier, who plays an ambitious Foreign Ministry staffer trying to convince her male superiors that the terrorists were on a suicide mission. Opening in cinemas this week, the movie has been described as the French equivalent of Paul Greengrass’ ‘United 93’, which is also about the hijacking of a commercial plane by Muslim extremists.

In fact, both movies are filmed in a similar handheld, faux-verite style to give them a gritty feel. Leclercq says that the similarity isn’t a coincidence. “Before we filmed this movie, I sat my crew and d.p. (director of photography) down in a screening room and made them watch United 93, Bloody Sunday and the Bourne trilogy,” he says. “I love the way Greengrass filmed those movies. I love the way he uses the camera to put his audience right into the action.”

Besides trying to achieve the intensity of the Greengrass movies, Leclercq was also keen to have his movie be as realistic as possible. To do so, he brought in real-life GIGN members onto the set to teach his actors how to move and shoot like them. And thanks to their advice and tutelage, Leclercq is proud to say that no stunt people were eventually used in filming the final climactic sequence of the storming of the plane. Not only that, Leclercq dispensed with the use of markers on the set to guide the actors where to move- he basically trusted them to move as they would in real-life and shot around their actions.

“To enhance the intensity of the sequence, I needed the actors to be able to have the time and the space to act freely as they would in the situation itself,” he adds. That is also the reason why he bought a plane just to film that last sequence. So meticulous was his process in recreating the events that he is proud to say the same number of bullets were used in the film as they were in real life- 600 to be exact.  

Yet Leclercq stresses that the intention of his film is not to glorify the GIGN, and that is why the story unfolds from three perspectives- the GIGN, the terrorists and also the Government. Bernier’s perspective was from that of the Government, and the actress says that being probably the only female character in the movie was an interesting experience. “Leclercq reminded me that I shouldn’t be too feminine in the movie, because the world of politics is very much male-dominated,” she explains. “You are here for your mind, not for your body, Leclercq would tell me.”

Bernier shares screen time in the movie with Vincent Elbaz and Aymen Saïdi who play the leader of the GIGN and the leader of the terrorists respectively. The decision to give equal screen time to each is unusual, but Leclercq says that it arose out of a deliberate intention to humanise both characters. “It was important to set these two characters up like a mirror,” he says. “You already see Elbaz’s character as a father. And then when you see Saidi’s character being confronted by his mother, you realise that he is also a son and a father and you recognise the similarities between the two.”

But Leclercq is also keenly aware of the sensitivities associated with portraying a Muslim extremist, especially when you have scenes of them praying right before their suicide mission. “Although there are about 3 scenes lasting about 30 secs each, we actually spent about seven to eight hours shooting those scenes,” he explains. “And I’m really gratified that when we screened this movie, I had people of the faith coming up to me and telling me how real it was. They could see that we were aiming for as realistic a portrayal as possible, and we were not trying to push against the religion.”

Indeed, Leclercq’s efforts to keep it real have certainly paid off, receiving compliments from none other than the real-life Thierry (Elbaz’s character in the film). Before anyone else saw it, Leclercq screened the movie for the GIGN leader. “He was crying after he saw the film,” says Leclercq. “Despite the many years past, it was still a difficult experience for him, but when he saw the movie, he said it was exactly as he had remembered it and he was really happy about it.”

Text by Gabriel Chong